Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle [Jesus] in his words. And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away. -Matthew 22:15-22
With these words, Jesus at the same time acknowledges that earthly government is both divinely sanctioned and, at the same time, not to be conflated with the kingdom of God. It would behoove us not to forget this lesson in today's politically-religiously charged culture of outrage.
This is not about a particular political affiliation, candidate, office, party, or whether you think Hillary Clinton would have been a better president than Donald Trump. This is about when we take those opinions, and conflate them with our religious sensibilities. True religion is faith in the saving life, work, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ for you. This cannot be leveraged to serve our political agendas. And whenever it is, it gets ugly.
Appealing to our religion to push our political and social sensibilities is not what Jesus died for. And when we make it about that, it becomes more exclusive than the very inclusive Gospel. It sets up dividing lines that God never put there; boundaries that He sent His Son to break, walls that were torn down in the death of Christ. Yet we see it everywhere: people politicking in the name of Jesus; people capitalizing on the teachings of Jesus to force the issue and make their political ideologies more than a philosophy, even of a matter religion.
You and I, we’re both guilty of this. If not in word and deed, then at least in thought. We are all too eager to tear down authority and see our own established. Picking up on Jesus’ words, the apostle Paul writes, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” (Rom 13:1–2)
Peter writes, “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (1 Pet 2:17) Bear in mind that when Peter writes, “Honor the emperor,” this would be tantamount to telling a Southern Rebel to honor President Lincoln, or Luke Skywalker telling the Rebellion to honor Emperor Palpatine, or telling a Bernie Sanders supporter to honor President Trump. You get the picture, right? What Paul said was extremely politically incorrect. No wonder James sent men to check up on him.
What really is at stake has nothing to do with politics. Regardless of who is attempting to usurp Jesus’ mission and leverage it to support their own political agendas, whether Pharisee, Sadducee, Herodian, Greek, or Roman, His reply is simply, “My kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36)
It's simple and clear. Jesus will not allow us to take his mission and conflate it with ours. His is eternal. Ours is temporal.
What Jesus has to say is, "I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (John 10:16) Also, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) Through the apostle Peter, Jesus also said, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Pet 3:9)
The short and long of this is that we are called to preach the Gospel, not politics based on religious ideology. Religion does not make for good nation building, neither does nation building necessarily do better when it is based on Judeo-Christian values, despite what our homeschool curriculum taught us (I was homeschooled K-12, and proud of it). Christianity does not make us right; it saves us from all our wrongness. We often conflate the two, and then we further confuse it by finishing any of the following sentences with something like, "it best reflects my faith in Jesus:"
“I voted for ‘such-and-such-candidate’ because…”
"I am completely and vehemently against this or that because…"
“I support ‘so-and-so’ because…”
"I am for (fill in the blank) because…"
If we think that has anything to do with the eternal Gospel of Jesus Christ, we are breaking with the faith of the universal church of all time. It just doesn't work. And here is why. It does not allow for the left and right-hand kingdom of God. Simply put, God rules indirectly, through instituted, earthly government that is established and implemented to protect, not every person from every tribe and race and people, but those people who fall under its jurisdiction.
A temporal, earthly nation can only do so much. Jesus Christ came for so much more. His Gospel is trans-national, trans-time, and trans-cultural. The governments and countries of this earth are not. In our expectation for our national government to be all things to all people, we're placing our governments and nations on a pedestal only God can sit upon and not be toppled from.
No president can save us. No king, dictator, or emperor can do what Jesus has done and is doing. We should not hold them to the standard of the Gospel. If we're looking for the fulfillment of the Promise in them, we're looking in the wrong place. In the government, we will only find "they're doing the best they can with what they have to protect what they've got." In the Gospel we find our "now, but not [completely fulfilled] yet." And when it is completely fulfilled, it will be better than any earthly government can ever make it here and now.
We look forward to the “not yet.” It does not mean we give up on the “now.” It means we do not conflate the “now" with the “not yet.” We remember that God does not promise perfection here. The government is not the church. Let's stop pretending it can do our job for us.
Christ called the church, not the Roman Empire, to take the saving message of the Gospel to every tribe, tongue, and nation. Jesus has forgiven the Church, not the American government, or any other. So receive that forgiveness and pass it along to someone else. The President of the United States has not been divinely called within his civic office to be an ambassador of the Gospel. His job is to uphold the Constitution and ensure the freedom and security of citizens. We can debate what that entails and looks like, but at the end of the day, your faith in Christ doesn’t inform that any more than it would inform your position as a Christian citizen of Russia, Iran, or North Korea.
The early Christians under the Roman Empire did not look to Caesar for salvation. Neither did they turn to him to do their job. They found it in no one else other than the person and work of Jesus Christ. Neither Caesar, nor the President, nor any other leader shall save us or our foreign neighbor. Let's stop conflating Jesus' job with our national leader's job. Let's stop conflating our job, as a member of the church, with our State's job.
In Christ, it is finished. Period. Now go and tell someone the good news.
Brandon is married to Becky and together they have two daughters and a son. Previously, he has served in the armed forces as an infantryman for seven years, from 2001-2008. In 2004, and again in 2007, he was mobilized for overseas deployments to combat zones where he ran force protection and peacekeeping missions, and would tell you he is still learning from those experiences. He has served in children and youth ministry, jail outreach, and as an officer on boards for evangelism and missions. In his spare time Brandon likes to read books about sin, grace, and faith. He also writes for the CHF blog, enjoys thought-provoking movies and shows, and has actually sipped craft beer so good he hopes it's the micro brew they serve in heaven. But his true passion, even if expressed in great weakness, is and always will be sharing the scandalous message of salvation by grace through faith in Christ. None of us deserve it, but we are forgiven. This is most certainly true.